Part of the $447 billion jobs plan that President Obama unveiled last week is devoted to elementary and secondary education. The president proposed $30 billion to prevent 280,000 teacher layoffs that White House economists predict will occur this year from state budget shortfalls. That money could be directed at any part of school employees' compensation packages, either to prevent layoffs or to rehire teachers who have lost their jobs. Obama also is seeking $25 billion to modernize 35,000 public schools in need of repair. Education Department officials say the money is not intended for new school construction, but it could be used for upgrades to existing facilities. States already have deferred $287 billion in maintenance costs, they say.
Obama's proposal would need swift approval by Congress in order to have any impact, but that may not be forthcoming. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., immediately rejected the school construction and education portions of the plan. "More stimulus spending is not the right solution to our nation's job crisis," he said. "Putting the federal government in the business of school construction will only lead to higher costs and more regulations." Kline also pointedly asked the president to abandon the "failed policies of the past" and "join our efforts to chart a better course for our children's future." Kline has been pushing his own education agenda that is designed to take federal government out of the public school system. The administration disagrees with that basic premise, signaling a stalemate in actual policymaking.
It's not clear that Obama's education proposals would spur a measurable economic boost, but that may be beside the point. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the real goal is to keep schools from cutting staff, extracurricular activities, and elective curricula like art, music, and physical education. "It just hits home so poignantly how great the need is," Duncan said Friday while riding a bus from Milwaukee, Wis., to Chicago to visit ailing schools.
It sounds like a rehash of the debate around Obama's first stimulus bill. Does it make economic sense to spend federal money to shore up crumbling schools and stop teacher layoffs? Does the prospect of more federal money for schools also mean there will be more meddling from regulators? Would Obama's proposal make a real difference in kids' education? How strong is the link between K-12 education and jobs? Do K-12 proposals belong in a jobs plan?